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Monday, October 26, 2009

More on partisan media

Jack Balkin has a great post linking the White House-Fox News feud to the rise (or re-rise) of the adversarial partisan press in the early 21st century. Fox, Balkin argues, is the heir to the party press of the late 19th-century, when newspapers were owned, operated, and controlled by the various political parties. Although not party-owned, Fox is aligned with one party, so as to be a virtual political and policy mouthpiece for it. And there is no line between “news” and “opinion” and no real attempt to maintain one.

Balkin offers two conclusions, which I endorese, about the current contretemps. First, the White House is wrong to dismiss Fox as not a “legitimate” news-media organization. Fox is a perfectly legitimate news organization, but it is engaged in a different enterprise than The New York Times or the Wall Street Journal and other outlets that try to maintain the 20th-century journalism paradigm. And the White House is thus on fair ground treating Fox differently than other outlets, as well as in challenging the validity of what Fox reports—just as it would challenge arguments made by the rival political party. The White House would be better served by pitching the dispute at that level. Of course, Fox has been so successful in convincing the public (and other media outlets, see below) that it truly is "Fair and Balanced" that such a pitch may not work; the public still sees this as the Administration taking on a news outlet simply for reporting news.

Second, Balkin notes the irony of The Times and other outlets backing Fox against the Administration, by insisting that Fox is, in fact, no different than other news organizations. Fox and its brand of journalism are ascendant precisely because newspapers are dying. By backing Fox, The Times and others may be hastening their own demise.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on October 26, 2009 at 08:00 AM in Howard Wasserman, Law and Politics | Permalink


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Outlets like the Telegraph (or for that matter the NY Times) seem to me to be operating at a far higher level, analytically, journalistically, than Fox or MSNBC. There's nothing wrong with partisan journalism so long as it doesn't pretend to be non-partisan, but when it's practiced so shoddily and obsequiously, I do have issues. Would the Telegraph get behind an English version of Sarah Palin?

Posted by: Asher Steinberg | Oct 27, 2009 4:33:30 PM

WSJ maybe, but NYT? Come on.

Posted by: Chris | Oct 26, 2009 5:40:03 PM

Michael Barone has a nice post explaining why "partisan journalism can be good journalism". Barone observes that partisan newspapers remain common in Europe, corresponding to their stronger party systems: "Britain's Telegraph and Times are Conservative papers, the Guardian leans toward Labour. France's Le Monde is gauche, Figaro is droit."

I doubt that anyone questions the legitimacy of, say, the Economist, despite its libertarian bent. Likewise, the Nation is a legitimate journalistic vehicle, despite its leftward tilt. More generally, the notion that journalism ought to be ideologically neutral is actually a recent (post-1890s) development, related to the rise of the Australian ballot, the non-partisan local election, civil service reform, the special commission, the commissioner form of city government, and various other anti-partisan reforms of the middle class that were aimed less at high-quality journalism and more at disenfranchisement of the working class.

Readers and listeners like the entertainment of a good fight, and partisan journalism provides with precisely such a spectacle. The sober, dull ideal of non-partisan journalism purveyed by mugwump reformers of the 1890s is really a disaster for political participation and public attentiveness. We have seminars, workshops, and scholarly journals, all heavily subsidized by the public fisc, that supply academic commentary. Why disparage the legitimacy of journalism that does not try to ape the academic tone?

Posted by: Rick Hills | Oct 26, 2009 3:15:05 PM

There is middle ground between the 20th century "neutral journalism" paradigm that the network news and AP newspapers adopted as a goal, and the partisan journalism that was common place in the 19th century and is seeing a resurgence in Fox News, talk radio, the New Republic, and websites like DailyKos.

The middle ground is what I call "opinionated journalism" of the stort done by the Economist, the Atlantic, the New Yorker and many blogs. The BBC has been nudging in this direction for some time now. Opinionated journalism obtains brevity and clarity with admitted personal biases and abstractions of the journalist, but doesn't make a strong, coherent effort to maintain a partisan bias. The staff may collectively lean one way or another, but the focus is on incorporating opinion to add to understanding.

Individual stories may be off-base from time to time, but by setting a more achievable threshold of disinterest instead of neutrality, the enterprise as a whole deflects claims of media bias, much as a claim of "bias" doesn't have much bite with respect to an isolated op-ed piece.

Posted by: ohwilleke | Oct 26, 2009 1:37:57 PM

Howard -- you'll be interested in this paper -- http://papers.ssrn.com/Sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1451393 -- which ties the decline of the partisan press to the rise in split-ticket voting. Really interesting empirical work that shows that the form media takes has a direct effect on voting patterns...

Posted by: D.Schleicher | Oct 26, 2009 11:54:55 AM

I have no great love for Fox News, or any TV news operation for that matter, but do you have any evidence that Fox's regular news coverage is any more rightward biased than CNN, MSNBC, NYTimes, and other outlets are left-biased? I suggest it is no more self-evident than conservative perception of left-bias in the mainstream media (and conservatives may have more facts on their side).

Of course O'Reilly, Glen Beck, and others set the tone for Fox's editorial shows, but perception is not necessarily reality and it varies greatly depending on who is doing the observing. Furthermore, I would argue that these hosts are defined more by their populist expressions than any real conservative ideology.

If your argument is that news organizations should be judged on the basis of their editorial coverage, then you could hardly make the claim that the NYTimes makes a serious effort towards "balance" (perhaps just less populist, not necessarily more intellectual always). Truth be told, the strong negative perceptions of Fox from those that lean left has to do more with the relative observation compared to the majority left-leaning press and with the populist antics of just a few of Fox's shows. (How many on the left have actually watched substantial amounts of Fox's news coverage beyond just select clips of O'Reilly, Beck, etc?)

There are a large number of people, like me, that hate the likes of O'Reilly but also see clear problems with coverage in the media that supposedly "attempt balance" but whose news rooms and editorial staff are almost entirely staffed by registered Democrats. I suggest you would be a little less sanguine about this suggestion if the situations were reversed, i.e., 90%+ Republican and you had seen hours upon hours of fawning coverage of Obama and one-sided coverage of the health-care debate (one can still support various policies, but honestly discuss some of their drawbacks and the facts surrounding the issues).

I suspect that biased reporting is generally not the product of conscious thought and rarely the product of any sort of concerted or organized effort. The media has many opportunities to insert their bias through selective reporting and the manner in which they report the news (even if they're not aware of it). Reporters that the feel strongly about something will rarely be able to spot their own biases, especially when they operate with very little exposure to any counter-veiling thought.

Although I am uncomfortable with populists like O'Reilly and strongly desire deeper and more balanced coverage, I do not believe it is possible to provide balanced coverage in the newsroom when the entire organization leans so heavily in one direction. If you truly want to shift away from the current heated/populist/shallow/etc trend, my suggestion is that the news organizations create an outlet for deep and balanced discussion of the issues. This demands hiring thinking reporters from BOTH sides of the aisle and integrating these perspectives frequently (perhaps, in editorial, allow the more intellectual and rational elements of both sides to present their ideas side-by-side).

Posted by: fall99 | Oct 26, 2009 11:04:17 AM

I don't think Fox is the same as the NYT or other newspapers, but is it really that different from MSNBC? I don't see much difference.

Posted by: JH | Oct 26, 2009 9:54:23 AM

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